As the House and Senate prepare to meet next week to work out differences in their farm bills. the lobbying efforts are intensifying to get last-minute changes to the 1,000 page legislation that sets the nation’s farm and nutrition policies.
Work on the farm bill was delayed after contentious battles in the House over proposed cuts to the food stamp program, and the bill was stalled further by the government shutdown.
Anti-poverty groups want to make changes in the international food aid program that would allow the Agency for International Development to increase the amount of food it is allowed to purchase closer to where it is needed, rather than buying from American farmers and shipping it overseas.
A coalition of budget watchdog groups and a seafood trade group are lobbying to repeal a $20 million catfish inspection program at the Agriculture Department, which was put into the 2008 farm bill at the request of catfish farmers to limit imports. Opponents say it is duplicative because there is already a catfish inspection program at the Food and Drug Administration.
Food banks and other advocates are hoping to stop huge cuts to the food stamp program that they say will cause millions of people to go hungry.
And farm groups are asking lawmakers to maintain certain farm subsidy programs and resist making changes to others, like the sugar program, which limits domestic production and imports. Farm groups have also asked lawmakers to resist changes to the crop insurance program, which environmental groups say provides incentives for farmers to plant crops on land that is not suitable for farming.
Lawmakers from the two chambers plan to meet next Wednesday to begin negotiations on the bill.
They face a number of obstacles to a final five-year farm bill. Although the two bills make similar reforms to farm programs — like eliminating $5 billion in so-called direct payments that go to farmers and farm landowners whether they grow crops or not — the bills contain significant differences.
The biggest are the proposed cuts to the food stamp program. The Republican-led House proposed a $40 billion cut to the nutrition program, while the Senate bill cuts $4.5 billion.
Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts and one of the lawmakers selected by the House Democratic leadership to work on farm bill negotiations, called the cuts, particularly those in the House, unacceptable. “The farm bill should not be making people hungry,” he said.
Mr. McGovern said he has heard from a number of groups urging members of Congress to resist cuts to the food stamp program. “It’s going to be a fight,” he said, adding that if the program’s opponents insist on such huge cuts, “they’re going to ensure that there will be no farm bill.”
In an Oct. 15 letter to lawmakers working on the farm bill, the American Farm Bureau Federation said one of its biggest concerns was a provision in the House bill that would eliminate the so-called permanent law provision, which causes farm programs to revert to 1949 law if a new farm bill is not passed. That would result in significant increases in government spending on farm support programs.
The Farm Bureau said it was opposed to eliminating the provision because it had “served as strong motivation for Congress to enact new farm bills,” said Bob Stallman, the Farm Bureau’s president.
Members of Congress have also increased their lobbying efforts. A bipartisan group from the House sent a letter to Frank D. Lucas, Republican of Oklahoma and the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, and Collin C. Peterson, Democrat of Minnesota and the ranking member of the committee, urging them to insist that the House-approved language repealing the duplicative catfish inspection program be included in the final version. The Senate version of the bill does not include the repeal.
About 50 members of the House sent letters to leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, urging them to keep changes to the international food aid program contained in the Senate version of the farm bill, a move backed by a coalition of groups that include Oxfam America and the World Food Program U.S.A.
“Reforming our food aid system could enable millions more people to be reached with lifesaving aid without costing taxpayers one extra penny,” the coalition said in an Oct. 22 letter.